Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Amin Saikal  |  28 March, 2023

The Limits of Beijing’s Middle East Diplomacy

Image: Salma Bashir Motiwala/Shutterstock


This article was first published in The Strategist on 17 March 2023.

In China-brokered talks, the two oil-rich and rival states of Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic relations after a seven-year split. Although the two sides need much confidence-building, their rapprochement carries the potential to change the regional geopolitical landscape at the cost of concerns for policy hawks in the US and Israel.

The longstanding Iranian–Saudi sectarian and geopolitical rivalry has been a major source of tension and conflict in the Persian Gulf region. Traditionally, whereas Iran has sought to project itself as the guardian of Shia Islam, Saudi Arabia has claimed the leadership of Sunni Islam. Both have also competed for regional geopolitical supremacy. They have been involved, in opposition to one another, in some of the conflict-ridden flashpoints in the region, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Fearing Iran’s nuclear program and regarding the country as a regional threat, the traditionally US-backed Saudi Arabia has opened backdoor diplomatic channels with Iran’s other US-allied regional foe, Israel, and supported the normalisation of relations between some of its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in particular) with the Jewish state in an anti-Iran front. In response, Iran has forged close ties with Russia and China. The Saudi execution of a prominent Shia cleric and Iranians’ storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran resulted in Riyadh cutting ties with Tehran in early 2016.

However, the regional picture has lately changed for the two protagonists. Despite being under severe American sanctions and beset by public protests since September 2022, the Iranian Islamic regime has managed to maintain its regional influence in the Levant—the area stretching from Iraq to Lebanon—as well as Yemen and has made a show of its military strength by supplying Russia with deadly drones in the Ukraine conflict.

Saudi Arabia hasn’t been able either to rebuff the Iranian influence or to maintain its historical trust of the US as a very reliable ally, especially in the wake of America’s inability to rein in Iran and to avoid defeat in Afghanistan. It has increasingly found it in its interest to diversify its foreign relations, forging closer relations with the very powers with which Iran has established camaraderie, most importantly China.

The kingdom’s young de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman has viewed this diversification as not only signalling his dissatisfaction with Washington’s criticism of his alleged human rights violations, but also aiding him with realising his vision to make Saudi Arabia a regional superpower by 2030. For this, he wants to reduce the country’s dependence on hydrocarbon as a source of wealth; expand its economy, trade and inflow of investment and high-tech industry; and change its social and cultural landscape, though not its authoritarian politics. He has found the Chinese model more appealing in this respect.

Beijing could not be more pleased with the Iranian–Saudi rapprochement under its diplomatic auspices. It constitutes a major step, along with the recent peace proposal for Ukraine, in Beijing’s global diplomatic offensives to raise China’s credentials as a peacemaker through a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states on the world stage. The underlying message is to present the US as an interventionist ‘warmonger’ power. In addition, it paves the way for China’s deeper and wider economic and trade ties in a region from which it imports some 40% of its annual oil needs.

These developments can only be unsettling for the US and Israel, both of which regard any regional easing on Iran, especially with China’s support, as contrary to their interests. The US wants to maintain maximum pressure on the Iranian regime over its nuclear program, regional influence and handling of recent domestic unrest, headed by Iranian women against theocratic restrictions and declining standards of living. It is also not keen to see Saudi Arabia tilt towards the very powers that the US seeks to contain.

Israel regards Iran’s Islamic regime as an existential threat and has vowed to do whatever it takes to prevent it from becoming a military nuclear power. The two sides have been locked in a shadow war for some time. Israel has frequently attacked Iranian targets in Syria and Lebanon, assassinated several of the country’s nuclear scientists and raided its ships. In a more daring act, recently it directly attacked defence installations in Isfahan where Iranian nuclear facilities are located. In turn, Iran has targeted Israeli ships, intelligence and diplomatic personnel, and has promised to retaliate against any hostile Israeli action.

Israel and Iran have at times come very close to serious blows. Any direct confrontation between them could have devastating consequences for the region and beyond. Having said that, it’s also important to be reminded that China has good cooperative diplomatic, security and intelligence relations with Israel. Can we expect Beijing to step in there as well to bring about a resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, where the US has failed? Most likely not, given Israel’s intransigence not to give up its occupation and America’s unwavering strategic backing of it.

Related articles:

Has the Iranian Regime Reached the End of its Rope? (5-minute read)

The Geopolitics of the Middle East (15-minute read)

Amin Saikal is adjunct professor of social sciences at the University of Western Australia, and is the author of Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic and editor of Iran and the Arab world: a turbulent region in transition.